Some Critical Thoughts

Peter Wood

The term “critical thinking” is a bit like the Euro: a form of currency that not long ago many were eager to adopt but that has proven troublesome to maintain. And in both cases, the Greeks bear an outsized portion of the blame. 

It was some Greeks after all who dethroned their gods and began to ask—systematically, relentlessly, and often annoyingly—whether we could trust appearances, and whether ideas that seem true really are. Critical thinking was the procedure for uncovering hidden premises and perturbing the tranquility of axioms. Thanks to Plato and his successors, the West has had 2,500 years of epistemological discomfort. 

I’ve recently been reading Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine testifies to a lot of things, but a central theme is his restless search for secure knowledge. Though he could not read Greek, Augustine encountered some of the neoplatonists in Latin translation and was propelled by their critical reasoning to abandon what was left of his Manichaean beliefs. Via Augustine, critical thinking fused with the developing intellectual doctrines of Christianity. 

The spirit of critical thinking, ever dissatisfied with its conquests, is always scanning the horizon. Francis Bacon’s “new method” of inductive reasoning is yet another bolt from its bow. Modern science is an efflorescence of one kind of critical thinking. We can leave it to the philosophers to torture the question of whether the critical thinking of mathematicians, physicists, theologians, and literary critics are all at some deep level variations on the same thing, or whether to each its own criticality. 


But critical thinking today has reached the point of the Euro: in need of some serious revision. As Greece may need to go back on the drachma, the American liberal-arts college may need to get back on the trivium. The intellectual profligacy of our time is the use of the term “critical thinking” as a rubric for the application of cookie-cutter ideologies. When the term is employed on many college campuses, at least in the humanities, it often stands for a shallow and reductionist formula that refers to almost all forms of cultural expression as masks of power or hierarchy, and that finds themes of race, class, and gender are the most important elements in this masquerade. 

What’s “critical” about that sort of thing? Not much. Race-class-gender reductionism nods toward genuine critical thinking by maintaining the pretense that it aims to uncover the assumptions hidden beneath the surface of things. This can, of course, be true: race, class, and gender hierarchy can be hidden beneath surface appearances, and it is a valid (though increasingly trivial) exercise in critical thinking to work past the veneer. What’s trivial about the exercise is that the veneer is so thin. This often puts the RCG crowd of critical thinkers to work trying to make much of little. 

I have been summarizing a view that I have expressed here before and that has attracted the attention of a few academics who disagree with me on the factual point of whether “critical thinking” really has been subject to this mis-appropriation. There are three different versions of this disagreement. One is that race-class-gender “critical thinking” is a perfectly sound extension of the idea. Another is that RCG reductionism exists but isn’t the prevailing view in the academy. And yet another is that RCG reductionism is a mere caricature, and in that sense doesn’t really exist at all. 


I’ve been schooled in this partly by some of the members of the Association for Informal Logic & Critical Thinking (AILACT), who have done me the honor of devoting some space on RAIL, an aptly named blog, to pointing out my errors. “Steve” for instance, notes: 

In fact, at first blush Wood’s definition of the problematic sort of critical thinking (is there an unproblematic sort on his view?), the one that “academics uncritically cite as the supreme virtue of higher education”, struck me as being as novel as it was misguided. Certainly philosophers who actively work on critical thinking–especially those with ties to the informal logic movement like Bob EnnisDonald HatcherDavid HitchcockMark WeinsteinHarvey SiegelSharon Bailin, and Donald Lazere don’t conceive of it in this way, nor do cognitive scientists like Deanna Kuhn. And these folks actually do talk to each other. Having worked my way through a good deal of the corpus represented here, I can certainly attest that when academics like these stand up to promote critical thinking, they certainly do not intend to promote a decidedly uncritical repudiation of Western culture in all its forms. 

So what does “critical thinking” mean to the participants of the “informal logic movement”? Professor Robert Ennis, one of its leaders in another post offer a resume of AILments: 

“reflective thinking” John Dewey 

“the appropriate use of reason” Harvey Siegel 

“reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do” Robert Ennis 

“active, persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or a supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds which support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” John Dewey 

“purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based” Peter Facione 

“the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, which serves as a guide to belief or action” Michael Scriven/Richard Paul 

No doubt there is a range of philosophical perspectives embedded in this list, but the spirit of John Dewey seems to be the abiding genius.  Perhaps I am alone in not recognizing in these definitions much of anything that would serve as an ethnographic description of what generally transpires on a contemporary college campus under the heading “critical thinking.” 

The Subarctic Sublime

But I’ve been challenged to provide some evidence for my view that the shallow, reductionist pseudo-reasoning of the race-class-gender debunkers of culture is the prevailing mode. By way of answer, let’s look at one department in one college: the English Department at Bates College. English majors at Bates must take eleven courses in the department including “one course emphasizing critical thinking.” The course catalog doesn’t define the term, but it does list the twelve courses in the department that meet the requirement. They are: 

ENG 295  Critical Theory
EN/WS 297 Feminisms
NDS 325 Black Feminist Literary Theory and Practice
AC/EN 395B  Privacy, Intimacy, and Identity
AC/EN 395C  Frontier and Border in U.S. Literature
ENG 395D Victorian Crime Fiction
ENG 395K  The Arctic Sublime
EN/WS 395L  Feminist Literary Criticisms
ENG 395N  Ulysses and Its Others
EN/WS 395S  Asian American Women Writers, Filmmakers, and Critics
ENG 395U Postmodern Novel
ENG 395X  Pretty and Apt:  Philosophical Method and the Study of Literature 

The course descriptions (too lengthy to duplicate here but available in the catalog) don’t really explain why these courses, as opposed to dozens of others offered by the Bates English Department, qualify as courses that meet the “critical thinking” requirement.  But we have the Baconian method of induction at our disposal.  Two of the courses, “Critical Theory” and “Feminist Literary Criticisms” are plainly about literary criticism.  Does a course on literary criticism necessarily amount to a course on “critical thinking”?  I’d say no, but it is a possible explanation for the label.  Onward: 

The course descriptions for 6 of the 12 emphasize that the course deals with race

The course descriptions for 3 of the 12 emphasize that the course deals with class

The course descriptions for 6 of the 12 emphasize that the course deals with gender

The course descriptions for 8 of the 12 emphasize that the course deals with defining identity under adverse social conditions. 

The course descriptions for 3 of the 12 invoke some version of RCG litany: 

This course develops students’ ability to analyze gender in relation to other issues, including race, class, and sexuality. 

This seminar examines […] the representation and construction of race, gender, and sexuality… 

…shaped by evolving understandings of race, sexuality, gender, class, and nation. 

Other course descriptions reach further into the jargon of RCG terminology: “the relation of detection to class unrest and empire building;” “its artistic and ideological purposes for Romantics and Victorians;” “its legacy of literary provocation for ‘othered’ literary traditions;” “issues of socially constructed reality,” etc. 

Including Junior-Senior Seminars and Senior Thesis, the Bates English Department lists 99 courses in the catalog.  Some of the the 87 that aren’t awarded the status of meeting the “critical thinking” requirement involve the same RCG rigmarole.  For instance ENG 121H “The Brontes,”– 

Particular attention is paid to the Brontes’ representations of gender and class, and to the interrelations between these social categories. 

ENG 121M “Castaways”– 

What do such island myths tell us about a given culture’s conceptions of race, class, nation, gender, or sexuality? 

ENG 215 “Shakespeare:  Race and Gender”– 

students focus on race and gender in the plays as distinct but cooperating hierarchies of difference 

AA/ENG 253 “The African American Novel”– 

Issues addressed include [...] the “difference” that gender as well as race makes in determining narrative form. 

For sake of comparison: 

The course descriptions for 4 of the 87 emphasize that the course deals with race

The course descriptions for 4 of the 87 emphasize that the course deals with class

The course descriptions for11 of the 87 emphasize that the course deals with gender

Those who want can calculate the probabilities, but it appears that the likelihood of a Bates English course being labeled as a course that meets the “critical thinking” requirement for English majors is vastly higher if the course deals with race, class, or gender. 

Reasonable People

Let me forestall the likely criticism that this little sample fails to “prove” my thesis, because it is too small, or too eccentric, or because it lacks statistical controls. I don’t intend it to stand as proof, but as illustration. Dip into any college catalog and search for the term “critical thinking” in humanities departments, and you will find something similar to this. Bates only came to hand because it explicitly labels English courses that supposedly teach “critical thinking.” 

For what it is worth: I cannot find a single course among the twelve Bates English courses that purport to teach “critical thinking” that teach anything that corresponds with any reasonable degree of closeness to any of the six definitions of “critical thinking” offered by the leader of Association for Informal Logic & Critical Thinking as more accurate characterizations of how the phrase is actually used. This certainly isn’t dispositive. The Dewey-derivative AILACT definitions are so vague (e.g. “the appropriate use of reason”) as to encompass virtually any deliberative act. 

The AILACT folks on the whole seem to think that the term “critical thinking” is the special province of philosophy departments and that it is irrelevant that the term is used in ways they don’t approve of in other university contexts. One AILACTer declares he has been teaching in the California State University System “for almost 20 years” and that the term “critical thinking” “isn’t seriously used in the way Woods [sic] suggests.” But then he allows that it is in fact used the way I suggest but that he doesn’t “take this very seriously since it is a case of a term being used for political, not intellectual purposes.” 

This seems a rather odd posture: if widespread practice inconveniently contravenes theory, stick with the theory and scoff at the practice. 

Yet another AILACTician, Professor Catherine Hundleby at the University of Windsor, avows that she does “do race-class–gender analysis of critical thinking,” but studiously resists “all forms of reductionism.” In fact, she worries about “the paucity of critical thinking texts providing race-class-gender analysis.”  Good news, however is on the horizon. “I know that bell hooks has a new book on critical thinking, as education for freedom.” 

I left with the impression that the AILACTers occupy a rather narrow peninsula in the world of arts and letters–a place where leftist pieties flourish unmolested by facts, and the inhabitants spend their time congratulating one another on their insights in the theory of critical thinking without noticing the ocean of reductionist babble all around them. But I risk being unfair. Some of the folks posting to AILACT have indeed noticed the surf pounding on their shore. Professor David Sherry writes of the “450 courses” at his school that qualify for general-studies credit that “each one of them claims to teach critical thinking, including, e.g., a lecture course for 500 that covers rock music from elvis to led zeppelin.” And another, Professor Michael Scriven, notes that when “critical thinking” was made a requirement in California, “it was the Black Studies folk who led the rush to get their basic course, on white racism, qualified as a CT course,” and that I have “some reason to complain” that “critical thinking” has come to mean (in part) “railing against racism.” 

The Banality of Debunking

I imagine this debate will continue. The Chronicle of Higher Education has lent it an ear on quite a few occasions. Mark Bauerlein last year noted the hubris of humanities professors who argue as through the humanities must be preserved to “instill critical thinking in students,” as though the sciences have no hand in the work at all. A few years ago, Laurie Fendrich laughed at the pretensions of academic colleagues who set out to measure “critical thinking” as part of outcomes assessment. Of course, that’s precisely what the Collegiate Learning Assessment purports to do. Michael Roth provided a nice summary of the post-war development of thinking about “critical thinking” in which he wisely urged us to “be wary of creating a class of self-satisfied debunkers or, to use a currently fashionable word on campuses, people who like to ‘trouble’ ideas.” 

There are depths here to be plumbed beyond the soundings I have taken. Still, I see no reason to retreat from my basic observation. On today’s campus, “critical thinking” has come to mean no more or no less than the self-satisfied debunking that Roth warned against. It is debunking that forwards a simplistic reductionism in which the favored terms remain race, class, and gender. 

And it is a currency that is rapidly losing whatever value it had. It would be nice if the philosophical equivalent of the European Union intervened to inspire another Augustine or another Bacon. But before that can happen we need the pedagogical equivalent of monetary reform.  Indoctrination is not and never will be “critical thinking.”  And re-labeling ideological advocacy as instruction in the arts of intellection is the kind of deficit spending that brings nations to their knees.

  • Share

Most Commented

May 7, 2024


Creating Students, Not Activists

The mobs desecrating the American flag, smashing windows, chanting genocidal slogans—this always was the end game of the advocates of the right to protest, action civics, student activ......

March 9, 2024


A Portrait of Claireve Grandjouan

Claireve Grandjouan, when I knew her, was Head of the Classics Department at Hunter College, and that year gave a three-hour Friday evening class in Egyptian archaeology....

April 20, 2024


The Academic's Roadmap

By all means, pursue your noble dream of improving the condition of humanity through your research and teaching. Could I do it all again, I would, but I would do things very differently....

Most Read

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

June 5, 2024


Subpoenas for All!

Ohio Northern University knaws its teeth with an appitite for vindictive lawfare....

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...